So, within the space of a week, I got three queries from undergraduates who want to study synthetic worlds and video games as graduate students, from a humanistic or social-scientific perspective. I'm fielding more and more of these kinds of questions as time goes by, which I think is only a little bit about undergraduates knowing that I'm interested in this field and more about rising numbers of future academics wanting to study in the field.
So I'm keen to survey TN readers: what would you recommend?
My basic starting position is that whatever interdisciplinary program a potential Ph.D candidate might choose, they must also develop a convincing disciplinary profile if they have any interest at all in remaining in academia. There are very few junior-level jobs advertised for "interdisciplinary scholars specializing in interactive media, video games and synthetic worlds".
So right off the bat, I think that means you have to go to a place where you can also work with mainstream disciplinary scholars in disciplines like: cultural anthropology, communications, cultural studies, literary criticism, film and media studies, education studies.
This is all for doctoral candidates who want to study games rather than make them (though there are people who do both).
Appearing as a legitimately "disciplinary" person in one of those fields might stretch one pretty far away from the most intellectually interesting and methodologically useful ways of studying synthetic worlds and video games, mind you. For example, as a graduate student in your average cultural anthropology program, you'd already have one strike against you for not going off to a materially challenging fieldsite and another strike against you for trafficking in media and cultural studies. So you'd have to find a place where there are advisors who are enthusiastic about bridging those worlds not just while you're studying, but who are able to frame what you do for the wider discipline in their reference letters in a way that makes it acceptably "normal".
Beyond that, when I'm advising undergraduates about graduate study in any field or discipline, I tend to say that they need to look for programs that have strong institutional backing, a critical mass of faculty, a couple of faculty who are generous advisors, and least important, a generic reputation for excellence across disciplines. So there are people who I think are just fantastic in this field as advisors, but where they're relatively isolated for the moment. It helps a lot for a graduate student to have at least two or three direct advisors or mentors and for there to be a wider institutional world they can draw upon.
All of this being said, the institutions that come to my mind most readily in the United States include the following:
University of Pennsylvania
I think at least some of these would involve study in programs that aren't centrally known for work on video games or synthetic worlds but where my reading of the faculty and programs there suggests that a student who wanted to do that kind of work would be enthusiastically supported.
There are institutions outside of the US that would be as strong or stronger than any of these programs: the Center for Computer Games Research at Copenhagen, a number of British universities, some Australian institutions, but a lot of the students I advise feel pretty strongly about wanting to stay in the US for graduate study.
So what am I missing from this list? (This is largely my reason for the post: I feel like my sense of the on-the-ground resources in the field is pretty scattershot.)